Achieving an Endgame with Finite Philanthropic Capital
Current Status: Complete
While UP will continue to support existing and past awardees seeking new transformative approaches to impact, we have decided to sunset this Search focused on models that can scale with finite philanthropic capital and explore a new direction.
Origins and Approach
We embarked on UP's first Search with the intention of experimenting with a new sourcing model, evaluating opportunities based on their potential endgame (inspired by the article, "What's Your Endgame?") rather than short-term output metrics, and prioritizing efforts that have a clear financing pathway at scale.
UP searched widely for rare opportunities that require a finite amount of philanthropic capital to embark on a pathway to spread without additional donor funding. Our goal was to encourage applicants to think creatively about social change and to articulate how they will realize their ultimate endgame. We wanted to kickstart teams' drive toward sustainability and help them achieve philanthropic independence for their ideas and endeavors.
The primary goal of UP's first Search was to support efforts that could result in large-scale improvements in human welfare. Ideas could be at any stage of maturity, pertain to any issue, sector, or geography, and had to:
Create transformative impact: Ideas have the potential for a big and sustained social return, regardless of financial return.
Use a finite amount of philanthropic capital: Ideas have high fixed costs, low or no marginal costs, and a clear path to implementation and scale beyond our initial investment.
Reflections on Completed Search
We launched UP at the end of 2014 and sunset the first Search in 2020. Over those five years, we received almost 1,000 submissions, shortlisted about 150, and selected 18 awardees. Our goal was to find high-impact opportunities that could achieve scale with a finite amount of philanthropic capital, and that would often be ignored by other funders or be perceived as too risky. We were largely successful in achieving our primary goal with more than three-fourths of our completed awards-to-date (11/14) graduating from our funding and either achieving their goal or sustaining their work from other funding sources.
We conducted an in-depth review of this Search, which validated a few things. First, our process, for the most part, worked. It identified a significant number of high quality opportunities, many, but not all, outside of the traditional social enterprise field. With almost half of the awardees, we helped catalyze and bring together a team. We also maintained a flexible process, allowing us to see opportunities from a diversity of channels, with some of our awardees coming through our traditional scout-driven submission process, some from references, and some from direct outreach to us. However, the majority of referrals and applications did come from our existing networks, so we had to be intentional about building relationships outside of these circles. There was some success here, but we are committed to continuing to improve our outreach to communities that may not typically engage with private philanthropy.
Second, our awardees were, by several measures, successful. Most awardees met or exceeded our expectations for impact and almost all validated our initial assessment of their leadership potential. The high success rate obviously raises questions as to whether we were too risk-averse in our selection process, or not daring enough.
Third, our process and selection led us to find several breakthrough or transformative awardees. While we were focused on high-impact opportunities, we did not set an initial impact or innovation bar for our work, especially since we have been working across sectors which makes comparability challenging. That being said, in looking back and applying an innovation lens as to the degree with which an opportunity was pursuing a new market or a new solution or both, we had no opportunities in a Step change category (existing solution for an existing market), about half in a Jump (improved solution for a redefined market), and another half in a Leap category (new solution for a new market).
Finally, when we launched UP more than 5 years ago, the idea of focusing on finding opportunities that could scale with a finite amount of philanthropic capital was more novel. Since then, more funders are focused on supporting efforts with clear endgames or a systems-change agenda and, likewise, there is now a better continuum of philanthropic capital to help efforts scale their impact. As such, we believe this approach is no longer as unique and may face a limited set of opportunities where we can be uniquely catalytic vis-a-vis other funders.